SYDNEY: Indigenous people around the world faced extinction this century unless an obesity-driven diabetes epidemic was curbed, experts told aconference in Australia on November 13.

“We are dealing with the biggest epidemic in world history,” said the director of Monash University’s International Diabetes Institute, Professor Paul Zimmet. “Without urgent action there certainly is a real risk of a major wipe-out of indigenous communities, if not total extinction, within this century,” he told an International Diabetes Federation meeting in Melbourne.

The “diabesity” epidemic threatened the original inhabitants of Asia, Australia, the Pacific, and North and South America, he said.

Indigenous people were particularly at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, which was primarily caused by obesity, because of the rapid transition to Western diets and lifestyles, Zimmet said.

The “thrifty gene” allowed communities of hunter-gatherers to store fat in times of feast for survival of famines, but modern lifestyles provided continuous “fea-sts” and less exercise, he told AFP.

Complications of Type 2 diabetes, now being found in indigenous children as young as six years old, include increased risk of heart disease, stroke and kidney disease.

Canadian diabetes expert Professor Stewart Harris said with up to half the adult populations in some indigenous communities affected, diabetes posed a serious threat to their survival. “The rapid cultural transition over one to two generations of many indigenous communities to a Western diet and sedentary lifestyle has led to diabetes replacing infectious diseases as the number one threat to their survival,” he said.

The world-first three-day conference on diabetes in indigenous peoples aims to agree on a set of measures to present to UN for an international effort to curb the epidemic. These are likely to include improved maternal and child health services, and access to an affordable and nutritious diet for impoverished communities.